Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why "Medieval" Fantasy

It should be apparent that Nightwick's world is modeled on that of Medieval Earth, or rather a fantastic version thereof.  It contains a unified Church, monks, knights, kings, barons, castles, and a whole slew of other trappings one normally associates with the Middle Ages.  As I'm sure everyone reading this blog knows,  this is nothing new for D&D.  It has largely been the "default setting" since the game's inception, though this varies wildly as does most things about D&D.

It is so prevalent that many participants in the OSR have had a strong reaction against it.  This is not to say all Old Schoolers revile the Medieval Fantasy idea or even that those who intentionally avoid using a Medieval setting hate Medieval Fantasy.  Rather, many Old Schoolers look at the works in Appendix N that do not have a strong connection with the Middle Ages or damsels in distress and wonder "why the hell can't D&D look like that?"  I don't blame them.  I'm typically more stimulated by the Ancient World than the Medieval one.*  Greece in particular fascinates me, though usually in a very anachronistic form.  I'm often known to mix Hellenistic and Archaic Greek cultures into a great stew that looks like what Ray Harryhausen would see if he dropped acid (and was a derivative hack instead of a brilliant special effects artist).  I tend to mix some Semitic cultures in too, as well as Roman things, but the point about Harryhausen remains accurate.  Science Fantasy also pushes certain buttons for me.  I watched Thundarr as a kid, and my favorite thing about the Necromancer Games version of the Wilderlands was the liberal placement of laser guns throughout the setting.

So why then would I make a Medieval Fantasy project my main setting?  Well, there are several reasons.  The most immediate is practicality.  D&D, as I've already mentioned, is designed with a Medieval setting in mind, and while I can struggle against that it's really fucking hard to explain what goblins and orcs are doing running around in Troy.  If I want to be able to use utilities such as the encounter tables I have to have a setting where they make some semblance of sense.  Clerics too are an issue.  Since their powers only truly vary based on whether or not they are good or evil.  This poorly represents the polytheistic model found in most D&D settings, but works rather well if one assumes a monotheistic Church and a great Adversary.

Also, I have other influences which do favor the Middle Ages.  Gothic horror -- both in its literary form and its more distorted presentations in film -- has had a major influence on how I imagine Nightwick Abbey.  To some degree the abbey is my attempt to challenge James Maliszewski's assertion that a megadungeon would not fit in the Ravenloft setting.  While my affection for that setting has waned since I originally ran games in it, it draws on sources which ignite my imagination in ways that few other fantasies can.  It could be said that I was less of a Fantasy fan than a horror one, and I would not dispute this claim.  I should note that the films of Roger Corman and Terence Fisher have much more influence on Nightwick Abbey than has The Castle of Otranto.  The reason this is important can be found in the genre's own name.  Gothic is meant to evoke those odd, pointed arches one can find in High and Late Medieval Architecture.  If I want to evoke the imagery present in these sorts of stories, I need to have an explanation for why there is Gothic architecture.  Placing my setting in a pseudo-medieval context is the easiest way to accomplish this.  Also, one seldom finds vampires and werewolves -- monsters I very much enjoy due to spending my childhood watching Universal Horror movies -- in the adventures of Conan and Odysseus.

On that note, the werewolf-haunted woods of Averoigne also played a large role in my decision to make my main project be a Medieval one.  I've mentioned several times that this particular Clark Ashton Smith cycle has influenced my work on Nightwick Abbey, and it is perhaps my favorite one.  Zothique would be its only contender; however Zothique's strangeness often makes me unable to incorporate bits of it into my campaign ideas.  Its exotic nature is both its greatest strength and weakness, at least for my purposes.  That dark province of France, however, sets my mind aflame with imagination.  It is a constant destination for my daydream-addled mind.

Metal (the genre not the substance) also had some influence over my decision.  Black Sabbath's song Black Sabbath instantly sends my mind to a place.  A horrifying place, but to some degree that is the emotion I wish to coax out of the players.  I often seek to evoke wonder as well, lest some of you think I'm a sadist.  The video to Holy Diver also gets me in a D&D mood, even if it is extremely silly.  It is hard to find music that puts one in mind of the Argos sailing around tropical islands fighting dinosaurs, which is my standard modus operandi.

Finally I should note that my background is probably the largest factor in my decision.  I'm a Medievalist (in training), so I obviously have a tremendous love of the Middle Ages.  I very much believe part of why I don't like typical Medieval Fantasy is that it has very little to do with the Middle Ages.  I'm not saying every setting should be like Harn, but I wouldn't mind a few more looking like Warhammer.  One of the main reasons I like the Ancient World is that I know less about it, and therefore I can make shit up.  That's not to say I don't know considerably more about it than the average person, just that my mind is less chained down by the realities of life in this instance.  I've largely tried to turn my brain off when considering demographics, but turn it back on when considering people's reactions to things like monsters and magic.  Hopefully this has worked.

Thus far, Nightwick Abbey has avoided being too much like the actual Middle Ages to stop being D&D, as well as being too different from them to stop being Medieval.  I think this is a nice balance.


  1. I like bog-standard* medieval fantasy as much or more than the more outre entries ... if I'm not working on something ancient-S&S-flavored, I'm probably working on something medieval. I'm lucky (I guess) in that I'm just as ignorant of the Middle Ages as I am of Antiquity, so I feel virtually no constraints of versimilitude.

    * I've rarely seen medieval fantasy done right in a gaming context, so I'm not sure how "bog-standard" it is.

  2. For gaming purposes you're right. As long as you don't go around thinking that Medieval people were all mentally handicapped and that the Crusades had nothing to do with religion, we're square. (In short: remember that people are people, regardless of the era they're from).

    I'd very much agree that it hasn't been done right terribly often. I think Harn does it one way which might be "right," and my project another. I'm admittedly far more on the fantasy side of the spectrum here, and I'm perfectly fine with that. I love reading about the Investiture Contest, but it isn't the most thrilling game material.

  3. Have you looked at Mazes & Minotaurs?

    The conceit is what would D&D have looked liked if the C&CS had been running an ancients campaign instead of medieval era.

  4. I have. I've always wondered how long one could run a campaign of it though. Doesn't it cap out at level 9 or so?

    I like a system where I could run the same setting over and over again (even if I rarely do).

  5. " It is hard to find music that puts one in mind of the Argos sailing around tropical islands fighting dinosaurs,"

    Strong disagreement from my end!

  6. "To some degree the abbey is my attempt to challenge James Maliszewski's assertion that a megadungeon would not fit in the Ravenloft setting."

    I think it has mostly to do with a person's previous experience and internal mental conception of the genre. Of the ones he listed there, I feel that Ravenloft and Al'Qadim are the most appropriate for a megadungeon setting. All the best haunted houses have shockingly vast dungeons under them, rife with eldritch horrors from the outer dark and the risen dead :)

    As far as the typical accuracy of most medieval materials, whether literature, games or films, it's not as bad a putting anthropoids in the midst of dinosaurs... but it's close.

  7. Mr. Maliszewski must not have ever played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. There's a horror/gothic themed megadungeon right there, folks! Just condensed slightly for video game purposes.

    Anyway, I've usually got great ideas for non-standard campaigns (Nordic/Viking Age, or Old World/barbarianish, or Colonial American-ish, or Mytho-Celtic, etc.) but my players tend to just want to play that 'bog standard' pseudo-Medieval mish-mash D&D is known for, so I just go with it.

  8. I share your Gothic sensibilities but I don't have a strong pull towards the Medieval. I prefer my Gothic architecture to have been moldering for centuries (thus my gravitation to the 18th/19th century aesthetic*). That being said, I tend to like all historical genres and the Medieval period is no exception. And I absolutely *love* what you are doing with Nightwick. It's a setting that I would love to play in or even run.

    * Not that you can't keep tech mostly constant and have ancient, crumbling Gothic building without ditching the Medieval. But I also dig 18th/19th century clothes more than Medieval fashion.

  9. @ All

    I hope my setting isn't "bog standard" :p

    @ migellito and Lord Gwydion

    I found his exclusion of Ravenloft to be especially perplexing. One would think that the idea of a "Domain" and the way the Mists work would lend themselves well to a giant, nigh-endless sprawling dungeon.

    I've always thought that Dracula's Castle a la Castlevania would work particularly well in the setting. It would only appear out of the Mists whenever a certain condition is met, and once inside you must learn its mysteries or be destroyed. That kind of thing.

    @ Risus Monkey

    I like the 19th century as much as the next man, but for some reason I have difficulty associating it with the "blood and thunder" style of action I like for D&D. I'm a big fan of mystery and horror too, as is noted above, but I have a very difficult time picturing a Victorian or Guilded Age "Fighting Man" who would meet the rigors of dungeoneering.

  10. I have quite an appreciation of medieval fantasy myself. My own much more modern setting just stems from a desire to see fantasy tried in other settings--and perhaps a American sort of setting, as opposed to say, Victorian-ish fantasies.

    Anyway, have you read The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart? It's full of sort of grubby (and sometimes Gothic, and sometimes humorous) middle ages detail.